Journaling through Proverbs: “Do not toil to acquire wealth”

November 5, 2018

Today’s reflection (which I’m transcribing with minimal editing from my journaling Bible) comes from Proverbs 23:4-5:

Do not toil to acquire wealth;
    be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
    for suddenly it sprouts wings,
    flying like an eagle toward heaven.

The book’s ambivalent relationship with (attitude toward) wealth continues. Having wealth, per se, is good and preferable to not having it: You can accomplish great good with it and, to some extent, protect yourself from harm. The problem is that we can’t acquire wealth without being sorely tested. Indeed, Proverbs warns that most of us will fail the test. Prosperity is as much, if not more, of a test than poverty. It tempts us to place our trust in earthly treasure rather than in God. See Proverbs 30:8b-9. Notice v. 4 says, “Do not toil to acquire wealth,” not “Do not acquire wealth.” In fact, Proverbs makes it seem as if a life devoted to God’s wisdom and knowledge will naturally lead to some measure of material wealth. But the acquisition of this wealth should never be the goal: our goal should be to seek our treasure in God alone.

Inasmuch as we don’t have wealth (in which case who among us can deny that folly and sin—whether personal, familial, or institutional—don’t play an important role?**), we can, by God’s grace, have wealth in God. Finding our treasure in God is independent of earthly treasure. Indeed, this is why we need discernment: to know that worldly treasure is fleeting, unlike the treasure we find in Christ, an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4).

** I can already hear skeptics of the Bible objecting to this, but not so fast: Who among us, regardless of financial means, is able to say, “I have applied all the lessons of wisdom found in this book to my life; I have not behaved foolishly or sinfully or greedily; I have always worked hard and never been lazy; I have always been a good steward of the gifts that God has given me; yet I still find myself in desperate financial need”? Not me! I suspect that none of us can.

The point is, each of us can take responsibility for our sinful contribution to our own financial troubles while at the same time recognizing the sinful forces at work outside of ourselves that have contributed to these troubles. Isn’t this why this same book (Proverbs) commands compassion, generosity, and almsgiving to the poor—because it recognizes the extent to which sin outside of ourselves or beyond our control has harmed us?

Nevertheless, this book, along with the Bible as a whole, loudly affirms that we can find true wealth in God—any one of us! God’s grace, therefore, couldn’t be more democratic!

But the book’s overriding preoccupation is this question: Do we desire God more than any earthly treasure? Do we want the wisdom and knowledge that come from God’s Word more than silver or gold? If not, then Proverbs has nothing to teach us, for this is the book’s starting point: the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10):

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

2 Responses to “Journaling through Proverbs: “Do not toil to acquire wealth””

  1. Amy B Says:

    What’s that I smell???? Is it . . . a whiff of prosperity Gospel?(“In fact, Proverbs makes it seem as if a life devoted to God’s wisdom and knowledge will naturally lead to some measure of material wealth.”) Please clarify.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Perhaps a whiff, Amy, but I can live with that. (I knew that sentence would trip up someone!) I simply say “a measure of”; I’m not talking Bentleys and private jets. Being wise and knowledgable the way Proverbs prescribes tends to protect us from destitution. That’s not a terribly ambitious claim—given how foolish I know myself to be. The ambitious part—which requires nothing less than divine intervention to make possible—is the second claim: that we can, irrespective of our financial standing, find lasting happiness and satisfaction in God. As I say, the Bible teaches that prosperity is a terrible test, which we will likely fail. How many examples of this do we see in the real world?

      What can I say? The message of Proverbs is complex and nuanced.

      I hope you and the fam are well, btw. 🙂 I missed you at the class reunion. I was there for the Friday event. I was afraid to go, I almost talked myself out of it, and it ended up being a great experience. Henderson was a special place. (Did you know, by the way, that we’re the only public high school that has accounted for not one but two astronauts?)


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